Best Writing Tip: How to Get Away with ‘Murder’

editing your writing

By Tarumbidzwa Chirume

I was 15 when my English teacher, Mrs Williams, told me to commit murder. 

It was Speech Day, and we all had to speak our self-written speeches for three minutes. I was confident in my speech – it was well-written, and I’d learnt it off-by-heart – so nothing could go wrong.

Or so I thought.

By the time I stood up to say my speech, my knees and hands were shaking, and so was my voice. But that wasn’t why I received the grade I did (one I won’t disclose for my dignity’s sake):  my speech was too long at four minutes and 35 seconds. 

Mrs Williams pulled me aside after class and said the three little words that would make a big impact on my writing after that:

‘Slaughter your darlings.’ 

I suppose I gave her one of those silent looks of incomprehension a teacher like herself was familiar with because she elaborated: ‘You need to cut out what’s unnecessary, no matter how beautiful or clever it sounds.’

At first, I was stumped. Isn’t good writing supposed to be beautiful and clever? How is that unnecessary? 

It wasn’t until later that I understood what she meant. Words are like people – they can be beautiful, but if their only purpose is to be beautiful rather than impactful, they’re shallow and just a distraction. 

I realised then that while I’d always considered myself a writer since I was five years old, I’d never been a writer with purpose. When I was twelve, like a true nerd, I’d started reading the dictionary, finding these beautiful but esoteric words that I’d been so eager to use in my writing. For example, I once used the word ‘floccinaucinihilipilification’ in an essay (I never used it again because my teacher didn’t understand it). 

I think that by using these ‘big’ words in my writing, I was trying to prove that I was a ‘big’, mature writer. But now I realise that there’s no point in using these words if no one understands them. The reality is that writing is a form of communication, and I can’t be a writer if I can’t communicate. 

So, with my next piece of writing in Mrs Williams’ class, I committed genocide. I killed off my whimsical words, my meaningless metaphors and all alliteration that was as trying-too-hard as the aforementioned alliteration. And for my next piece of writing,  a blog about vegetables of the underworld (don’t ask), I got 100 per cent. 

Writing success wouldn’t be possible without the sacrifice of a few sentences, sentences that I’ve memorialised in a specially-named document on my iPad called ‘Slaughtered darlings’. While dead people get graves and funerals, my killed words get word documents and about 936 kilobytes of iCloud storage. 

My ‘Slaughtered Darlings’ document still grows in size because, although I’ve learned from Mrs Williams’ tip, I keep making the mistake of ‘overwriting’ by overpopulating my essays with my favourite words. In the end, my sentences are destined to become more than lambs to the slaughter, but lambs for sacrifice.

About the Author

Tarumbidzwa Chirume is a first-year university student in South Africa. When she isn’t studying law, she’s procrastinating by watching Netflix K-dramas, reading and writing in her journal. 

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